Enter the Dragons
Surprisingly, however, despite multiple reports of seismic detectors recording the event, estimates of the yield of the device vary strikingly, with The Independent reporting a 15 kiloton yieldapproximately on the order of the atomic bomb used by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945while other news sources, including the Los Angeles Times, are reporting that at least some U.S. officials claim the yield was "less than one kiloton." The Los Angeles Times expands on this U.S. claim by noting that the nuke might have "...failed to achieve its full explosive potential." At less than a kiloton, it is actually within the realm of possibility that conventional explosives were used to simulate a nuclear blast.
A device yielding 15 kilotons is well appreciated for its ability to lay waste to an entire city, so a nuclear weapons capability even of such modest power by modern standards is nonetheless a clear indication that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has, indeed, become a full-fledged nuclear state capable of inflicting extraordinary damage on a military target.
If, however, the explosion was less than a kiloton, a number of possible scenarios emerge. First, it is possible that U.S. officials are deliberately underreporting the yield in an effort to calm domestic and international fears about and reaction to the test. On the other hand, if the device was a nuke and didn't achieve full potential, it would indicate that the North Koreans have not yet perfected the high technology of the triggering and aiming mechanisms that bring the fissile material inside the device into the compaction state required to create the critical mass that causes the material to become a fuel-exhausting, destructive nuclear explosion.
Even if the North Korean nuclear test came off without a hitch, few would dispute the objective evidence that Pyongyang is months if not years from becoming a genuine regional threat. Although it could right now deliver a nuke (if it really has any) by traditional aircraft, a bombereven if it were to appear as a civilian aircraftcoming from North Korea would be confronted and turned back or shot down were it to come anywhere near a target in South Korea, Japan, or the United States. And as far as using ballistic missiles, although the North Koreans have intermediate-range missiles they have tested successfully, their sole test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepodong IIpossibly a variation on the Iranian Shahab 3 or a straight upgrade from Nodong and Scud technology used in the Taepodong Iwas a failure, having exploded either unintentionally or by ground directive about 40 seconds into its maiden test flight.
But even if North Korea were to suddenly have long-range ballistic delivery vehicles in its arsenal, the nation's nuclear research and development community must still make it through a long, expensive, and technologically challenging set of hurdles with miniaturizing the nukes so they can be fitted in warheads atop missiles. Beyond the miniaturization still await the complications of remote arming, accurate vehicle targeting, and hardening to countermeasures ranging from missile command signal jamming on through to mid-air interception by the latest generation of anti-ballistic missiles the United States is deploying. (Whether or not the U.S. ABMs are effective is another matter entirely, but their existence serves as a factor in the attack calculus of what a missile would need in order to survive to target.)
Reports vary somewhat on the size of the North Korean nuclear arsenal: a lower bound might be six to eight, and an upper bound might be twelve; but the size and the very existence of the North Korean arsenal is at this point irrelevant to the important events that will occur in the region over the coming several years. Japan is more than capable of going nuclear in a matter of months, and its legendary industrial expertise combined with its already-existing rocketry program ensures that, long before North Korea can become a regional menace, Japan could become a significant threat to the government of Kim Jong Il in North Korea.
Mainland China, once the principal benefactor of Pyongyang and its chief protector against the worst of international sanctions that would otherwise have already been imposed on the DPRK, is now not only making starkly harsh, public statements about North Korea, but is also engaging in an almost disturbingly warm dialogue with Japan, this latter turn at least possibly in part the result of the stepping down of Japan's long-time prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who had a bad habit of repeatedly souring Chinese-Japanese relations, particularly with his official visits to shrines honoring the Japanese Imperial Army troops of World War II, whom the Chinese to this day consider nothing less than the very worst of all possible war criminals. Even though Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, is a protégé of the former prime minister, and even though Abe openly supports a more robust Japanese military posture, he has managed (with some help from North Korea's petulance) to get started on the right foot with the leadership in Beijing, with the two sides forging an alliance that could conceivably result in China allowing Japan to play the role of hitman-in-waiting to remind North Korea that its ambitions for regional influence will not go unchecked.
North Korea's alleged nuclear test, in and of itself, is not nearly as important as a military achievement for Pyongyang as it is as a signal event in the shifting military dynamics and diplomcatic relationships matrix on the western side of the Pacific Rim. Although the United States can be a force in economic retribution against North Korea, its ability to impose a swift military solution is virtually non-existent, although the possibility always exists, given the current leadership in Washington, that the Pentagon might be ordered to try a military option. Absent a complete loss of connection to proper assessment of probable outcomes, the U.S. will not use military force either to destroy North Korea's nuclear facilities or to kill its leader. This is due only in part to the fact that American military forces are already stretched to their limit in the twin theatres of Afghanistan and Iraq. North Korea does not need to have or use nuclear weapons to be extraordinarily dangerous: not only does it have a huge standing army, but it also has tens of thousands of short-range rocket launchers that could within a matter of minutes begin what would be an almost incalculably destructive hail of hundreds of thousands of rockets onto South Korea. Within a day, such a siege would do at least as much damage as a concerted air force bombardment campaign; and given the dispersal of the launchers, it would be impossible to neutralize more than a fraction of the launchers before the collective effect of so many rockets had exacted a crippling toll on the economic vitality and physical infrastructure of the South.
That the United States does not have a viable military option is good news to the extent that, first, such an approach to dealing with Pyongyang would likely be counterproductive in the extreme and, second, such an effort would press the U.S. military to its breaking point. On the downside, though, the fact that the United States continues to decline North Korean demands for bilateral talks further circumscribes the range of options in which the United States could be the defining force in taming the ambitions of North Korea's leader.
This, then, leaves South Korea, Japan, and China at least to some extent in the position of finding their own accommodation for each other in their common desire to control Pyongyang. It means a re-militarized Japan, quite possibly to become a nuclear state; it means an already fully militarized South Korea very likely to follow suit and go nuclear within a matter of less than a decade; and it means these two emergent, economically strong Asian nations becoming allied with the 800-pound gorilla of the region, China, which has every incentive to present itself as the far closer, economically growing, and very reliable alternative to Washington, mired as it now is and will be for years to come in wars of its own making on the other side of the world.
In short, the 21st Century will just keep getting more interesting, whether or not the United States is capable of maintaining even the façade of relevance to it.
The Dark Wraith will have more good news as the new century proceeds.